ESG Journey: From ‘The Burger Strategy’, Trust and Upskilling to Transversal Assimilation

By: Maya Colombani, Chief Sustainability and Human Rights Officer at L'ORÉAL Canada

Maya Colombani, Chief Sustainability and Human Rights Officer at L’ORÉAL, discusses ESG’s pivotal role in business transformation, advocating for top-down commitment, bottom-up pressure, and middle governance – a strategy she refers to as “the burger strategy”. It underscores the importance of integrating sustainability throughout the value chain and building trust through transparency and engagement. Ultimately, achieving net zero requires collaborative efforts and a holistic approach to sustainability governance and communication.

ESG. These three letters underline the challenge we face when we treat this new expertise. ESG stands for environmental, social and governance, but for somebody from the outside, what is surprising is the G of governance.

After many years in this relatively new expertise, it became evident to me that governance plays a fundamental role in deploying a sincere and efficient sustainability policy in the private sector. There is no way to change our business if we don’t change how we make decisions. Sustainability should be the center of our business and the top priority for a CEO; otherwise, the whole value chain will not embody it. 

“There is no way to change our business if we don’t change how we make decisions.”

Maya Colombani

At the Top: Sustainability Should Start at the Top

This is why it is highly strategic to have a sustainability officer who reports to the CEO, as do other experts. Sustainability has become an expertise that is as important as other areas like finance, human resources or marketing. In L’Oréal Canada and at the global group level, sustainability accelerated after the creation of a chief sustainability officer position. 

Integrative the Entire Value Chain  

We need to create a sustainability committee encompassing the entire value chain; it is highly strategic to cascade a sustainable vision to all departments to coordinate the complete transformation.    

Bottom-Up: Positive Pressure 

Finally, looking at the “bottom,” we will find a new generation of talents looking for sustainability and pushing the company to take new actions towards this objective.   

By applying pressure from the bottom, defining a priority from the top, and establishing clear governance in the middle, we will succeed in operating a real 360 transformation of our business. Looking at my previous experiences in Brazil and Canada, it became clear that this approach I call ‘’The Burger Strategy” was the key to success.   

Sustainability is a New Expertise, as Was Digital 

To put things in perspective, we must acknowledge that sustainability is a new expertise, the same way digital was two decades ago. If this concept has been historically linked with philanthropy, today, it’s about reinventing our business model from scratch.  

New topics like decarbonization, circular economy, and social justice have been implemented, and they are becoming more and more complex each year. We must create this new expertise inside our companies and upskill our people in all sectors.  

When we have constructed the right foundation of our governance, the best way to accelerate is to make an official and public commitment. It is important to establish a robust and confident relationship with society in a world where people expect more answers from the private sector, especially on challenges such as climate change, biodiversity collapse, and social inequalities.    

Building Trust With Our Society 

Publishing ESG commitments is a strong way to answer the public’s questions and engage our people internally and externally by fixing clear targets and milestones. The point is not perfection; it is to put our resources behind a clear action plan, ensuring a strong mobilization to reach new targets. Therefore, approach sustainability the same way as business, with project management skills.  

Nobody expects us to be perfect, but everybody expects us to be authentic and honest. 

In this world where ‘greenwashing’ (the practice of making unsubstantiated or misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a product, service, or company) is still used too often, and where more companies tend to do ‘green-ushing’ (under-communicating their sustainability efforts to prevent accusations of greenwashing), I still think that we must communicate more about our targets and recognize our true performances (good or bad) with a certain humility so people can track our actual progress.  

Sharing our difficulties and failures can re-create the sentiment of trust between our companies and society. Today, we are witnessing a fundamental change in communication. We must stop overselling our sustainability achievements while hiding our difficulties. It is a terrible mistake. A new way of communicating could have an impact beyond our own business and inspire everyone in our value chain to take greater action. Through our mistakes and our victories, we can engage all members of our ecosystem so they can also develop this new expertise.    

“Today, we are witnessing a fundamental change in communication. We must stop overselling our sustainability achievements while hiding our difficulties. It is a terrible mistake.”

Maya Colombani

Net-Zero is About Our Ability to Engage Our Full Ecosystem 

If we all want to achieve net zero and impact our Scope 3 emissions, we must answer the challenge of engaging our whole ecosystem. I believe we can only do so if we start acting more collaboratively.  

To engage our ecosystem, we must first clean up our activities (Scope 1 and 2). Even if they tend to represent fewer emissions than Scope 3, clearing the emissions of Scopes 1 and 2 will give us the legitimacy needed to engage the rest of our ecosystem.    

Once we gain that legitimacy, we can ask our suppliers and retailers to join our initiatives on social inclusion, reforestation, and decarbonization. This way, we can start a virtuous circle, in which other companies within our ecosystem will start sharing their own best practices, such as implementing renewable energy sources, reducing waste, and promoting diversity and inclusion in return. Everybody can learn from everybody. These best practices contribute to sustainability, enhance the company’s reputation, attract talent, and improve operational efficiency.    

To summarize, there is no net zero without first gaining expertise, trust, and legitimacy for what we have achieved internally to transform our own business and then communicating it with the rest of our ecosystem. Therefore, when we deploy our ‘sustainability roadmap ‘, by that I mean a strategic plan that outlines the steps an organization will take to become more sustainable, we will know where our most significant impacts are. Then, we can start investing in our lifecycle analysis; sustainability is also about numbers and KPIs. This roadmap guides the company’s sustainability journey, helping to prioritize actions, allocate resources, and track progress toward sustainability goals.    

To Sum Up

In conclusion, when it comes to sustainability, I always talk about the burger strategy; it starts from the top, it’s pushed from the bottom, and you have to organize the middle. Together, those three pillars form the basics of governance in sustainability.    

Humility, authenticity, and project management skills, coupled with numbers and actions are essential in driving this constantly evolving and highly prevalent expertise.     

I think sustainability is like digital; it’s all about constant upskilling and the ability to manage a certain level of complexity. Though in the future, I hope that this expertise will disappear on its own to become a transversal feature within the value chain and a true criterion for making important decisions, as profitability is today.    

In a way, I hope this expertise becomes so transversal that we will not need sustainability officers anymore, as this concept would be embodied by all the employees in the private sector. However, to achieve that goal, we still need to develop strong literacy and knowledge of sustainability because today, true sustainability experts are the ones who learn from the field.